You have probably noticed in the past year that I have enjoyed spending some time outside of the desert regions, with several trips into the Sespe Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest, Santa Ynez Mountains, and now the Santa Monica Mountains. These forested wildernesses have become my home away from Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and the Mojave in general. In terms of forest, I spent many years living on the east coast of the United States, and have a hard time seeing these lands as forest, but rather as desert with extra vegetation and streams. When forests come to mind, I image dense trees, obscuring the view of the sky above, as well as ten feet in front of your face. But nevertheless, this article is not about what makes a forest a forest, and a desert a desert, so I will get on with it.
Every once in a while the opportunity arises, and I am invited out to a special place not usually seen by the public. These occasions are often public outreach by private land owners that have something significant on their property that they wish to give the public the opportunity to see, but do not have the resources available to open these places for regular visitation. The “Cave of the Four Horsemen” happens to fall into this category, and is located on a large private ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, above the beach front community of Malibu.
This is the territory of the Chumash Indians. The Chumash have inhabited these lands for over 13,000 years, from what is now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, extending from Morro Bay in the north to Malibu in the south. They also occupied three of the Channel Islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel. At the tribes height, their population was in the tens of thousands, reaching out over several thousand miles.
In the mountains, the Chumash would find caves, and use them for sacred religious ceremonies. These ceremonies included painting designs on the inside of the cave walls; today we call these pictographs. Like their desert neighbors, the earliest Chumash used charcoal to create these designs, and later evolved to using colored pigments made from various colors of ochre.
Archaeological studies performed at the “Cave of the Four Horsemen” indicate that the sites earliest designs could date back as far as 500 A.D., with the most recent designs having been added between 1769-1770. The significance of the designs in the latter period are enormous, and contribute to the site’s nickname.
It is widely thought that the pictographs depicting four men on horseback are a historic record kept by the Chumash of Gaspar de Portola’s exploring party. Between, 1769 and 1770, Gaspar de Portola was one of the earliest Spanish explorers in this region. Of the four horsemen designs, two are wearing hats (one large brim), another carries what appears to be a lantern, while the fourth has no distinctive qualities. It is unfortunate that we have no way to fact check this nearly 250-year old documentation, but academics are fairly certain that the expedition of de Portola is what is depicted in orange ochre, on the shelter wall. This panel is the only known Chumash “rock art” panel to depict human figures on horseback.
Another panel of significance is that of what appears to be the transformation of a man into an Elk, which is depicted in a series of pictograph designs. Malibu area Chumash are known to have had a chief/shaman that as legend has it, was able to transform himself into an Elk. This panel may have been created by this shaman, while in an altered state of mind, or it could be a later documentation of this great shaman’s skill. Either way, the legend and the design of the Elk itself brings additional questions to the table, as it was previously believed that Elk had never inhabited this portion of California. However for the Malibu sect of Chumash to have been familiar with the Elk, they at one time had to have had significant contact with this majestic creature.
“The cave” or rather “rockshelter” holds over 100 painted designs in varying states of preservation. The eastern facing wall is the best preserved with images that appear as if they had just been painted yesterday, this is due in part to the slant of the rockshelter, keeping direct wind and rain from hitting the delicate panels. The north wall also contains a large number of designs, but most are in indiscernible, a result of long-term exposure to the elements.
Modern-day Chumash elders to this day gather at the “Cave of the Four Horsemen” performing spiritual ceremonies, continuing the long tradition of their ancestors. This is indeed a special place, and one that I am honored to have been able to share with you.